Citizenship describes the character of a member of a society, and how they behave and function in that society as well as how well they carry out their duties and obligations. When we apply that concept to the world of texts, emails, messages, photo sharing, live video, social media, and all other forms of living online, we call it digital citizenship.
So what does a “digital citizen” look like, and how can we as parents help raise good ones?
Just as we teach our children about their personal safety when out in public, we need to teach them how to be safe online. The very fundamental behavior in this area is learning not to share personal or identifying information with anyone you don’t personally know. This includes any site that is asking you for those details.
Any account they create (and there shouldn’t be too many before they turn 13, frankly) should have a strong password. At the very least, this should contain a combination of letters, uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols. It should be at least 8 characters long. Even better, experts tell us, is a cluster of four words that only mean something to the user.
Security online also includes learning about online scams and protecting yourself against phishing (an online attack attempting to capture sensitive personal information.) Kids need to know, for example, that criminals set up fake websites that look like the real ones. They then try to get you (through an email, text, or message) to log in using your username and password in order to capture that sensitive information.
Everything we do online–every click, every site, every purchase, every post or comment or upload–collectively creates our online identity. This is sometimes known as a “digital footprint,” but I prefer the term “digital tattoo.” Like its physical equivalent, your digital tattoo is almost completely permanent and very painful to try and remove.
Kids need to know that they are leaving a trail and begin to make smart choices about their online behavior. Show them how they can look up a product on Amazon one day and the next day, Google is showing them related ads in the search result sidebar. I once was teaching students about this idea and told them I could predict what would come up on the sidebar ads in my Facebook account. I pulled up my account and sure enough, a Milwaukee theater ad, an ad for a particular brand of backpack, and two other sites that I’d visited the day before. That is one piece of how your online reputation is formed.
It also forms with every social media post and photo you upload. We are creating a giant photo album of our lives, but it is wide open for all to see (regardless of the settings we think we have turned on.) Colleges and future employers are very likely to google applicants and check out their social media presence.
And beyond their reputation, their time online can heavily influence their own identity. The more our kids see the filtered and sanitized lives of their friends and their “friends,” they compare themselves…and usually don’t measure up. Peer pressure was bad enough when we were kids, before the instant, global connections. As a result, we must encourage a healthy, balanced sense of self and surround our kids with positive people, mentors, influences, and images of the amazing person that they are becoming.
One way our kids can develop that positive self is to focus on being positive online. Google launched their own version of a digital citizenship tool (ironic, I know) called Be Internet Awesome, encouraging kids to impact their little corner of the internet with kindness and positivity.
Cyberbullying, which continues to grow as an online plague, is a real concern that kids and their parents need to watch for. Certainly, we need to teach our kids never to join in on the bullying behavior that happens in chat, text, and social media. But more importantly, we need to encourage them to report it and to, when appropriate, stand up to it. “Upstanders” can combat cyberbullying far more effectively than any school program or policy.
We need to teach our kids to step away from the screen when someone sends something mean, and to not respond with the immediacy that usually fuels the fire rather than douses it. The overall principle should be “If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online.”
When I’m teaching students about copyright and fair use, I often use the expression “Just because you can copy-and-paste it, it doesn’t mean you should.” In an online environment where the technology blurs ownership and makes it so easy to take and use images and text, we need to teach our kids how to be ethical in their use of online material.
Anything that is created by someone is owned by them. If we are going to use it (an image, graphic, text, musical piece, etc.) we need to be respectful and give that creator the credit. Using it without doing so is a form of theft, frankly. It’s as if we are trying to claim that we did the creating.
Plagiarism (using someone’s work as your own) is a huge issue in schools, especially colleges, with some heavy consequences. Teaching kids about when and how to use others’ work correctly will prevent those errors in judgment, but more important, it will send the strong message that stealing comes in many forms. Same mantra: If they wouldn’t steal something physical from someone, why is it okay to steal something digital?
When we were kids, “information literacy” consisted of being able to find something on a library shelf. With so much information available at our fingertips, kids (and adults) are easily overwhelmed with all the streams and sources. As Lotus software founder Mitch Koper said: “Getting information off the internet is like taking a drink from a firehose.” (Ooh, citation! See what I did there!)
At a time when clickbait and “fake news” are flooding our information channels, our kids need to know where to go for reliable information and how to make good judgments once they are there. And this doesn’t happen in a single lesson or lecture, it happens over time with lots of examples and walking them through those judgment calls. Asking them to consider the source, check the facts, and look at the bigger picture will lead to more information-literate digital citizens.
Good digital citizenship should be one of our goals for our children, right there along with good health, strong academics, and appropriate bathroom etiquette. What if we all worked to improve our behavior in online society, taking our “duties and obligations” seriously?
The online world might be a kinder, safer, smarter, healthier, and more ethical place.